The King's Pawn is out today! And to celebrate I wanted to engage in some pure chess geekery. If that's not your thing, look away now. If you share my fascination with the game, dive in!
[First, a big confession. I am a hopeless chess player. I love the idea of it, but have never learnt to play with any level of skill and am regularly beaten by my children.]
Now that pre-orders of The King's Pawn are starting to arrive and it has been magically delivered to Kindles across the world, readers might have noticed something strange about the chapter titles - d4 Nf6, c4 g6… The eagle-eyed among you will recognise this as chess notation. My fantastic brother even sent a photo of himself playing along with a chess board.
This starting position is the set-up for the King’s Indian Defence - White builds a strong pawn centre, Black allows White to take control of the centre while building a counter-attack. It is a risky opening and tends to lead to unbalanced positions, the perfect style of play for both a rookie spy and a grand master.
There is a scene later in the book when Sarah and Skarparov play a game of chess. I wanted the game they were playing to reflect the mood of their conversation and the power balance of their relationship (yes, I am an uber-geek). I started rummaging around chess.com looking for inspiration and came across The Wildest Game - an obscure game played between Francisco Jose Perez and Joaquim Durao at the Beverwijk tournament of 1961. "An unusual variation of the King's Indian" resulting in a wild, unbalanced and unexpected game. It was the perfect fit.
Much later, I was looking for a way to distinguish the parallel narrative - some chapters are told from Sarah’s point of view, and some from The Pawn’s. The Pawn chapters had titles but Sarah’s did not which felt a bit out of balance. So I went back to the wildest game. The story arc of the whole book is essentially a scaled-up version of the dynamic of the Skarparov scene and follows more of less the same narrative as the Wildest Game. And by some strange twist of fate, the number of chapters I had written matched the number of moves in the game. It was clearly meant to be.
The diligent among you can play along as you go. Or you can find the full game here The Wildest Game
With thanks to GM Bryan Smith for his incredible commentary - who knew the description of a game of chess could be such a rollercoaster of emotion?